GASTONIA Gaston County’s slice of the Democratic National Convention pie may not be as big as officials first hoped, but it’s a still substantial chunk.
Ideally, they hoped that some of the 6,000 delegates would stay in local hotels, eat at local restaurants and hold parties and gatherings in Gaston County.
As it turned out, there are no delegates staying in Gaston County, and the only official event is at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden: a pre-convention welcome party for delegates from Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and West Virginia – one of several such gatherings around the region.
But tourism director Walt Israel said Gaston’s 1,500 hotel rooms are booked solid during the convention. The guests are support people such as FBI agents, U.S. and foreign media and peripheral groups such as lobbyists. Some are staying two or three weeks – much longer than delegates will.
“We came out better in the longer term,” Israel said. “We had to scramble to find enough rooms. It’s phenomenal.”
And the DNC isn’t the only event creating demand for hotel rooms on Labor Day weekend – there’s also the annual Shelby Hamfest amateur radio event at Biggerstaff Park in Dallas.
Four years ago, the hamfest moved from the Cleveland County Fairgrounds in Shelby to Gaston County. In 2011, about 12,800 ham radio enthusiasts from 30 states showed up. Many camped in RVs, but lots more stayed in local hotels.
Once the ham radio crowd clears out, rooms will fill up quickly with convention-bound folks. Hotels in Gastonia will host such guests as FBI agents and a crew from a Miami-based Spanish-speaking TV station. Most rooms in one Belmont hotel will be taken up by media from Washington, D.C.
Across the region, convention spillover is having an impact. In Cleveland County, people connected with the convention have booked 800 room nights in hotels scattered from Kings Mountain to Shelby, said Jackie Sibley, executive director of Tour Cleveland County.
Bebe Leitch, CEO of Hickory/Conover Tourism Development Authority, said between 100 and 150 hotel rooms have been booked there.
“There’s been some effect (from the convention), but it’s not tremendous,” she said. “I think it will pick up as the event gets closer.”
Meanwhile, Gaston law enforcement officers have been planning for possible spinoff scenarios from the convention.
James Buie, chief of the Gaston County Police Department, doesn’t anticipate many issues with demonstrators, but said “we’ll be prepared in the event they’re here.”
The department has canceled vacations for convention week, and officers are on call.
“Everybody’s on high alert,” Buie said. “But it’s mostly excitement. No one knows what will happen for sure. We’ve done a lot of work and we’re prepared.”
The county Police Department, along with most Gaston municipalities, will send officers to assist Charlotte police, but Buie said “the number’s not huge.” He didn’t say how many.
He sees convention duty as a chance for local officers to learn about such things as crowd control and bring that expertise back to Gaston County.
“It’s great training,” Buie said.
Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger said law enforcement planning for the convention has been extensive and that “we plan to handle about anything that goes on.”
As law enforcement gears up, there’s a flurry of activity at Stowe Garden with preparations for the delegate party Sept. 2.
“We’re absolutely thrilled to be selected for this,” said garden Executive Director Kara Newport. “It’ll really put us on the map and help boost our growing national presence.”
The outdoor party for 350 delegates lasts from 5 to 8 p.m.
Event planner Dina Berg Blazek of Charlotte said the gala will feature local food and beverages. Guests will get handouts explaining where the items came from.
As two bands supply the music, delegates will sample a menu that includes bratwurst sliders, shrimp and grits, a “moonshine oyster bar” and sampler of real Carolina white lighting.
Blazek hopes the weather cooperates Sept. 2 and the festivities at Stowe can remain outside and “showcase the beautiful garden.”
On Wednesday, Israel took part in a DNC hospitality information session at Gaston College’s east campus in Belmont.
About 30 people, including hotel employees, representatives from local attractions and law enforcement officers, attended the session sponsored by Gaston Travel & Tourism, Visit Charlotte and the Charlotte in 2012 Host Committee.
Attendees got an overview of convention week in Charlotte. On the Gaston side, Israel said the hope is that conventiongoers – whether they’re support people, media or delegates – will visit such places as Crowders Mountain State Park, the Gaston County Museum of History and Gastonia’s Schiele Museum of Natural History.
“This is the first time the Charlotte region has been on the world stage,” Israel said. “And we want to put on our best face and make sure it’s the most incredible experience visitors can possibly have. If they ever come back and visit us again we want to make sure they have the best we have to offer.”